St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris Martyr of Ravensbruck
On January 16, 2004, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople decreed the official glorification of Mother Maria (Skobstova), her son George (Yuri), and her assistants, Father Dimitri Klepinine and Elia Fondaminskii. The life of Mother Maria is one of great contradictions and yet great inspiration. She was once a socialist revolutionary and mayor of her Russian town, the first Russian woman to enroll in a theological seminary, married twice, divorced twice, mother of three, Orthodox nun, servant of the poor, the sick and the homeless of Paris, protector of Jews from the Nazis and finally, a martyr at Ravensbruck concentration camp.
Mother Maria was born Elisabeth Pilenko in 1891 to a well-to-do Russian family in the Latvian city of Riga. Her parents were devout Orthodox Christians and in this atmosphere of piety Elisabeth was raised to love and serve God. All this changed at the age of fourteen when her father died, which seemed meaningless and unjust to her. She decided that she no longer believed in God and declared herself an atheist. "If there is no justice, there is no God!" she said.
During her teenage years, Russia was in the throes of the approaching end of Tsarist rule, the subsequent revolution and Communist rise to power. Elisabeth became enamored of this revolutionary movement and at the age of 18 married a member of the Bolshevik party. Though she still regarded herself as an atheist she began to question her revolutionary sympathies as she saw the violence, poverty and suffering that the revolution plunged Russia into. Little by little, her earlier attraction to Christ and His Church came back to life and grew deeper in her soul. She began to read the Gospels and lives of the Saints. She applied for entrance to the Theological Seminary at St. Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg, an unprecedented request. Up to this date only male students preparing for the priesthood were admitted to the seminary and yet, surprisingly, she was admitted to the renowned school.
By 1913 Elisabeth's marriage had collapsed and ended in divorce while she was expecting their first child, Gaiana. Returning home to her family's country estate in Russia's south, she joined the Social Revolutionary party and in 1918 was elected the mayor of her town. During the Russian civil war she was arrested, jailed and put on trial for collaboration with the enemy. Only due to the intervention of a friend, Daniel Skobtsov, who was now her judge, was she spared execution by firing squad. After the trial, she sought him out to thank him. Soon they fell in love and within days were married. Before long Elizabeth was again pregnant and her son, Yuri, was born and later another daughter, Anastasia. With the Bolsheviks beginning to gain the upper hand in the civil war, Daniel and Elizabeth decided it was too dangerous to remain in Russia and after a long journey found themselves in Paris, France in 1923.
Tragedy struck the family in 1926 when five year old Anastasia died of influenza. After keeping vigil by her daughter's bedside for a month and watching her beloved child die, Elizabeth penned these mournful words:
When someone you love has died, the gates have suddenly opened onto eternity, all natural life has trembled and collapsed, yesterday's laws have been abolished, desires have faded, meaning has become meaningless, and another incomprehensible meaning has grown wings on their backs..... Everything flies into the black maw of the fresh grave: hopes, plans, calculations, above all, meaning, the meaning of a whole life. If this is so, then everything has to be reconsidered, everything rejected, seen in its corruptibility and falseness.
After her daughter's burial, Elizabeth reconsidered her whole life. She became aware that God was calling her to become a mother to all people who would cross her path. She felt that she was to share the love she had for her daughter with all people, especially "for all who need maternal care, assistance, or protection," as she said. While her husband supported the family by driving a taxi, Elizabeth devoted herself more and more to social work and theological writing. Perhaps a result of their daughter's death, Elizabeth's second marriage to Daniel Skobstov was dying and they soon separated.
Elizabeth acquired a position with an agency that assisted Russian refugees living in France and saw first-hand the poverty and dire circumstances in which they lived. With two failed marriage behind her, Elizabeth searched for what her true vocation in life was to be. With the support of her bishop, Metropolitan Evlogy, she began to consider the monastic life. But she felt herself drawn to a new form of monastic life, one that combined prayer and contemplation with service to those in need around her. She was tonsured a nun in 1932 and given the name Maria. Metropolitan Evlogy blessed her to devote herself to a new kind of monastic life, what she called "monasticism in the world." She opened a house of hospitality in Paris to serve the poor, the homeless, the desperate. She was not content to simply wait for the needy to ring her doorbell but traveled the back alleys and bars of Paris seeking out those in need of her maternal care. She entered those places where other people were simply afraid to go; she found beggars and drunkards, took them to her home, washed, clothed, and fed them.
She was a most unusual type of Orthodox nun, one that many people could not quite accept. The saintly Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of London, who recently fell asleep in the Lord, wrote of his first encounter with Mother Maria:
She was a very unusual nun in her behavior and her manners. I was simply staggered when I saw her for the first time in monastic clothes. I was walking along the Boulevard Montparnasse and I saw, in front of a cafe, on the pavement, there was a table, on the table was a glass of beer and behind the glass was sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman. I was young then and held extreme views.
Coming of the Nazis
The last phase of Mother Maria's life began when the German Nazis conquered and occupied France during World War II. While it would have been possible for her to flee France as the Germans were advancing toward Paris, she refused to leave. "If the Germans take Paris, I shall stay here with my old women. Where else could I send them?"
Early in 1942 the Nazis began their registration of Jews. Jews began to knock on the door of the house of hospitality asking if the chaplain, Father Dimitri Klepinine, would issue fake baptismal certificates to save their lives. With the support of Mother Maria, Father Dmitri issued the fake documents, convinced that Christ would do the same. When the order came from Berlin that the yellow star must be worn by all Jews, many French Christians felt that this was not their concern since it was not a Christian problem. Mother Maria replied, "There is no such thing as a Christian problem. Don't you realize that the battle is being waged against Christianity? If we were true Christians we would all wear the Star. The age of confessors has arrived."
In July, 1942, mass arrests of Jews began to take place--12,884 were arrested of whom 6,900 were children. They were held prisoner in a sports stadium just a kilometer from Mother Maria's house, before they were sent to Auschwitz. With her monastic robe gaining her entrance, she spent three days at the sports stadium distributing food and clothing and even managing to smuggle out some children by bribing garbage collectors to hide them in trash cans. Her house of hospitality was literally bursting at the seams with people, many of them Jews. Mother Maria remarked, "It is amazing that the Germans haven't pounced on us yet." She also said that if anyone came looking for Jews she would show them an icon of the Mother of God.
On February 8, 1943 the Nazis did pounce and arrested Mother Maria, her son Yuri, Father Dmitri, and their helper, Elia Fondaminski. In the pocket of Yuri was found a letter from a Jewish family asking for a false baptismal certificate. Father Dmitri was interrogated by Hans Hoffinan, a Gestapo officer. A portion of the interrogation has been preserved:
Hoffman: If we release you, will you give your word never again to aid Jews?
Father Dimitri: I can do no such thing. I am a Christian and must act as I must. (Hoffinan struck the priest across the face.)
Hoffman: Jew lover! How dare you talk of helping those swine as being a Christian duty! Father Dimitri: (holding up the cross from his cassock): Do you know this Jew?
For this Father Dimitri was knocked to the floor.
Mother Maria and those arrested with her were all sent to concentration camps--the men to Buchenwald and Dora and Mother Maria to Ravensbruck. A letter that Yuri Skobtsov wrote from the camp survives:
Thanks to our daily Eucharist, our life here is quite transformed and to tell the honest truth, I have nothing to complain of. We live in brotherly love with Father Dmitri and he is preparing me for the priesthood. God's will needs to be understood.
I am absolutely calm, even somewhat proud to share Mama's fate. Whatever happens, sooner or later we shall all be together. I can say in all honesty that I am not afraid of anything any longer... I ask anyone whom I have hurt in any way to forgive me. Christ be with you!
All four died as martyrs in the concentration camps. Mother Maria, Yuri, and Elia were gassed while Father Dimitri died from pneumonia.
While Mother Maria was unable to write to her friends from the camp, prisoners who survived the camps shared their memories of their time with her:
She exercised an enormous influence on us all. No matter what our nationality, age, political convictions - this had no significance whatever. Mother Maria was adored by all. The younger prisoners gained particularly from her concern. She took us under her wing. We were cut off from our families, and somehow she provided us with a family.
Some Teachings of Mother Maria
The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry, and imprisoned person the Savior says "I": I was hungry and thirsty; I was sick and in prison. To think that He puts an equal sign between Himself and anyone in need... I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my bones. It fills me with awe.
Christ gave us the firm and true teaching that we meet Him in every poor and unhappy man. Let us take that into consideration and give this poor and unhappy man our love, because he only seems poor and unhappy to us, but in fact he is the King of Heaven, and with Him our gifts will not go for nothing, but will return to us a hundredfold.
During a service, the priest does not only cense the icons of the Savior, the Mother of God, and the Saints. He also censes the icon-people, the image of God in the people who are present. And as they leave the church precincts, these people remain as much the images of God, worthy of being censed and venerated. Our relations with people should be an authentic and profound veneration.
- Very Rev. Edward Pehanich